In the summer of 2013, I went to visit my friend Patrizia in Casalbordino, a coastal city built on a beautiful hill in Abruzzo, overlooking the sea. Just before we sat for lunch, Patrizia showed me the tomatoes lying on the terrace, waiting half-opened as the sun would dry them. She took me to the vineyard, very close to her house, where they cultivated the grapes they later used to make wine and the olive trees where they took incredibly tasty olives to make the oil. Later that day, we sat at the table to eat and every single ingredient has homemade: the spaghetti and the tomato sauce, the white wine we were tasting, and the olive oil she had used to cook. And that’s the secret to Italy’s unbeatable cuisine: every little thing is as fresh as daisies can ever get.
The beauty of it lies not only in the ingredients but also in the eating ritual, which begins with mouth-watering mozzarella and ends with a heavenly sip of limoncello. So for the foodies and Italy-enthusiasts, here are the cities, the restaurants, and the ways to enjoy Italy’s seven most wonderful dishes.
Pizza Napoletana. Every Neapolitan will assure it: once you’ve tried pizza in Naples, no other pizza will be worthy of that designation. Naples was where it all started, where the “vera pizza” is produced at extremely cheap prices and yet with the best ingredients. One of the most traditional restaurants is Fratelli Sorbino, located in the run-down centre of town. It is so popular with both locals and tourists, that in order to get a table you need to book in advance and will probably still wait outside for a few hours. Once inside, the restaurant is simplicity in itself: no tablecloths, no glasses, not even china plates. Pizza (that is, a gigantic, indescribably delightful pizza, thick in the borders but very thin in the centre) is served on wooden plates and beverages on plastic glasses. And it is exactly that atmosphere that makes it so genuine. The place is decorated with devil dummies ad flames, evoking some of Napoli’s most traditional symbols that silently watch as the “pizzaioli” craft their masterpiece.
Roman gelato. They say that when in Rome, do as the Romans. So forget about the spoon and indulge yourself to the best ice-cream they way Italians do: licking it. You can find gelaterias nearly in every corner, but the quality varies just as much as prices. At the heart of the city, just around the Pantheon stands one of the most traditional ones: Giolitti, well-known throughout the country for its creamy specialty. My personal favourite is Frigidarium, a few steps from Piazza Navona, where the crew will suggest themselves the best treat for you. The secret to a perfect ice-cream is to order it with “doppia panna”, which means double cream, both inside de cone and on top of the ice-cream. Some of the delicious flavours: Pistacchio, a Roman favourite; Crema fiorentina, an exquisite blend of white chocolate ice-cream and Nutella; bacio, which I based in the world famous “bacio perugino”: chocolate mousse with hazelnut and chocolate chips; sabaione; and of course, not to miss is caffè.
But since you are in beautiful Rome, there is one type of pasta you cannot miss. Turns out that in n fairy-tale Italy, every region and every city have its particular type of pasta, each one with a secret tale behind. Carbonara was born to obscure origins in Rome, but legend has it that it was born as a hearty meal for charcoal workers (carbonari), as it involves bacon, eggs and cheese.
Caprese Salad in paradisiac Capri. The principle ruling the making of this salad is very simple: mozzarella cheese, cherry tomatoes, basil and olive oil. But no matter how hard you try it at home, you will never get that unique flavor of a real Caprese Salad. It may be because the best mozzarella de buffala comes from Campania, the region where Naples is set; or because of the freshness of the tomatoes that come from extensive fields at the south of the country. Truth is you’ll never taste it as you will there. So put on your swimsuit and soak up the marvelous view of the Mediterranean while enjoying this divine salad.
Cannoli in Sicily. When it comes to sweet delicacies, the southern you go in Italy, the better it gets. Cannoli Siciliani is a mouth-watering buttery roll filled with pistachio cream or ricotta. The dark pastry is so buttery that you can feel it melting in your mouth as you take the first bite. There are a few Sicilian pasticcerie in most Italian cities, but it is never comparable to the best pastry shops in Sicily: Rosa Nero and Pasticceria Oscar, if you are visiting Palermo, and Mad Genius, in the city of Messina. And since you are there, you may want to try a fresh lemon granita, which -they say- is as tasty as nowhere else in the globe.
The land of Bolognese sauce. It is probably one of the most famous sauces worldwide. They say that in Bologna, la mamma spends hours, even days, in the kitchen preparing the sauce in order to get the perfect aroma. “Pasta alla Bolognese” is one of the most typical dishes in Italy, be it lasagna, tortellini o tagliatelle, three of the most typical delicacies in town. One of the best places to enjoy this Italian specialty is Diana’s: white tablecloths, local businessmen, and classic Bolognese cooking carefully prepared since 1920 make it an Italian must.
Cottoleta alla Milanese in the capital of fashion. There is controversy as to whether this specialty is Milanese or German, corresponding to what they call “Wienerschnitzel”. The similarity doesn’t come as that much of a surprise, since Vienna and Milano were both part of the Austrian Empire for hundreds of years. Both are basically delicious breaded veal cutlets; the only difference, according to Kyle Phillips, is that the Viennese one contains both flour and bread crumbs in the crust, whereas the Milanese one just has bread crumbs. Fried or cooked with butter, the dish has become famous in many other countries, such as my dear home country Argentina, where meat is a basic ingredient in every recipe. One of the best places here you can try it is Damma-atrà, where you will also find typical Milanese starters such as polenta, fried potato skin and gnocchi fritti.
Bistecca alla Fiorentina in Florence. This Tuscan steak is made from the region’s Chianina breed of cattle, very prized for their tenderness and flavor. In a typically Italian style, little more than olive oil, rosemary, and salt are needed to make this grilled meat simply fabulous. The rite involves the waiter showing your cut before cooking it, so that you can agree on the size you prefer. Some of the places suggested by locals are Trattoria La Casalinga and L’antico Ristoro di’Cambi, for a more local atmosphere. It may not be a modest meal, however: it can amount to 35 Euros per kilo.